Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon, in many ways, paved the way for big leaps in space. After that “small step” came the first space station, the first probes sent into interstellar space, the first robots to Mars, the commercial space revolution, and more.
But space isn’t the only technological area that accelerated in development thanks to the Moon landings. Many of the internet technologies we use every day have their roots in the Apollo program. Here are a few.
A lot of the modern Internet is dependent on satellite communications, which broadcasts everything from data to television programming. Ella Atkins, an IEEE senior member and a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan says that while Apollo wasn’t necessary for this technology developed, it helped to accelerate a host of technologies for satellites “ranging from the communications software to systems that can survive in space for a long time.”
When people then left NASA for the private sector, or when contractors stopped working on the Apollo program, they still had that knowledge base gained during the moon landings. That base helped build the modern communications networks the Internet is built on.
Integrated Circuits And Embedded Computing
“In terms of the actual technology, the semiconductor technology and all this stuff – that was the very start of a lot of it,” says Bob Zagrodnick about the Apollo guidance computers. Zagrodnick worked for Raytheon during the Apollo program, and part of his job was managing testing of those computers.
Those computers helped legitimize the integrated circuit, which is the foundation of computing today, in the minds of a lot of engineers. Developed by MIT and manufactured by Raytheon, they accounted for about 60% of all the integrated circuits manufactured in the United States for several years in the 1960s. We now take integrated circuits for granted, but at the time they were radically new, and their use in Apollo helped engineers in other industries encourage their development, Mindell said. “The use of an unproven technology like that in something as important and high-profile as Apollo legitimized the technology in a way that’s hard to measure.”
What’s more, according to Mindell, is that the Apollo guidance computers made it possible for computers to manage multiple peripherals at once, the way computers do in your car.“It was really the first embedded computer,” Mindell says. “It was connected to dozens of different peripherals around the Apollo spacecraft with a lot of real-time control. It was very sophisticated.”
The “Mission Control” Model For Remote Operations
Advances in communications allows operations in a wide variety of systems to be controlled from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Hundreds of companies use remote operations, and a big influence on managing those systems comes from the Apollo program, says Atkins. She notes that many remote operations today have basically copied NASA’s Mission Control model. “Now with the internet we have a room full of people staring at data,” she said. “We have worldwide access to video feeds and other kinds of sensor streams.”
One of the instruments that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind on the Moon was a lunar laser ranging retroreflector. Manufactured by the Heraeus and Bendix Corporation, retroreflector uses a laser to precisely measure the distance from the Earth to the Moon down to a millimeter. Because the Moon and the Earth aren’t always the same distance apart, being able to position the precise location of the Moon enables engineers to figure out the gravitational forces influence the way the Moon orbits the Earth and the Earth orbits the Sun.
Knowledge of those forces is essential for ensuring the accuracy of GPS satellites. Without knowing those forces, it would be next to impossible to keep those satellites synchronized. Now lots of satellites are equipped with retroreflectors, the one on the Moon isn’t essential, but it was one of the first. Given how much tech companies now depend on GPS (think of how hard it would be for Amazon to deliver on time without it), this small array of mirrors that Buzz Aldrin deployed on the Moon is a hidden cornerstone of today’s economy.